Levon Helm/Joe Pug; August 11, 2010; Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle
Once it had been decided we were going to Seattle to see Chris Mills and Ha Ha Tonka, we needed to find some other shows to see. That turned out to be very easy. A perfunctory search on Pollstar yielded this gem- the drummer for the Band (who got their start as Bob Dylan’s backing band), and Joe Pug (a Chicago boy who wants to be Bob Dylan). The bonus was that it was in Seattle’s gorgeous Woodland Park. We’d already spent the day at the zoo and had heard them sound checking on and off as we wandered around. Unlike the Minnesota Zoo’s show area, the Seattle zoo didn’t have seats, instead everyone just staked out a spot on the North Meadow lawn, spreading their blankets, setting up their short lawn chairs, and opening their picnic baskets. In the hour between doors and the show we had plenty of time to be jealous of the fancy spreads the people around us had packed, but once the music began it was easier to ignore.
I’ve seen Pug a few times before, an opening set for Rhett Miller in front of a tragically inattentive audience, the end of a set at SXSW, and his 30 Minute Music Hour taping, but I’ve never really seen him play to an attentive audience. For two of his Madison appearances he’d tapped Brown Derby guitarist Andrew Harrison to play pedal steel with him, tonight he also had a pedal steel player by the name of Bucky Baxter, who coincidentally (or was it?) played with Dylan from 1992-1999. And yeah, it did sound like he said Bucky Badger the first few times he introduced him. Pug has a nice voice that often falls into a Dylan drawl, but unlike His Bobness it doesn’t stay as interesting. Combined with the warm weather and the hum of the pedal steel and I found myself lulled into a sleepy trance. Oddly enough, his last song, after he excused Baxter, was the one I enjoyed most.
Back in October when Charlie Sexton rejoined Bob Dylan’s band, people on the Internet were saying it would be great if multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell came back too. I wouldn’t argue that, the band consisting of Sexton, Campbell, and current rhythm section George Recile and Tony Garnier had been my favorite, and most consistent, of all Dylan’s bands. That’s where I found out that Campbell was playing with Helm. Of course, I had completely forgotten about that fact when Pug thanked the Zoo and the sponsors and Helm and Campbell. Wha?! And all of a sudden I was even more excited about the set we were about to see.
Helm is getting old, he turned 70 last May, and his white hair and slowed gait attest to that, but once he gets behind the kit he is an unqualified force of nature. They opened with the Band classic “Ophelia,” his gruff and gravelly voice surprisingly strong. It was one of only a few times he took lead vocals for an entire song, but it was one of many Band songs to make it into the set. “The Shape I’m In,” “Chest Fever,” and “Long Black Veil” (their cover is classic) preceded the inevitable encore “The Weight” which also included Pug and Baxter. Fittingly, a Dylan song made it into the set, and their version of “Blind Willie McTell” was terrific. When Helm took a break from the drum kit I was surprised to see the sound guy, who up until a minute ago had been just five feet to the left of us, take his seat. Ably, I might add.
In all the years Campbell played with Dylan, I marveled at his musical prowess on anything with strings, but I never got to hear him sing. Turns out he does that just as well, and I liked him best of all the vocalists who took their turn, especially on the Grateful Dead’s “Deep Elem Blues.” He’s a little grayer than he was then, but his guitar playing was still an absolute thrill, especially the extended solo that introduced “Chest Fever.” Wow. Additionally, Theresa Williams and Helm’s daughter Amy both played guitar and sang with the band. Keyboardist Brian Mitchell had a Dr John sort of vibe which served his raucous numbers well. The vocalists weren’t the only talent in Helm’s big band. He had a horn section- which included a tuba- that gave a nice fat sound to the songs they were featured on.
It was an amazing show and I’m still kicking myself for not seeing them when they stopped by Summerfest last month. Had I remembered then that Campbell was in the band you can bet I would have been there.
The awesomely delicious and divey 5 Point Cafe
At the Woodland Park Zoo
By the way, we learned that Helm's favorite zoo animal is the giraffe.
The Levon Helm Band
View from the Space Needle at night